Tonight was unusual in that it combined clear skies, a nearly full moon, and a very low tide, so I spent much of it standing (not sitting — much too wet) on the deck enjoying the stillness and clarity that follows bad weather. Smelling the characteristic scent of cedar, salt water, and seaweed,
it brought back memories of my summer up here on the island in 1987, and caused me to reflect upon how my life has come full circle in several respects.
Twenty years ago today, I was in college at the University of Washington, in my junior year. I’d gotten past my freshman indecision about a major, realized that much as my childhood dreams might protest otherwise, I wasn’t a physicist, and instead was much more likely to be a historian or some type of social scientist. I’d chosen history, but early in the preceding year, exposure to the College Honors Program core classes had convinced me that the nagging scientist inside could be appeased by anthropology but not by pure history, and over the course of my junior year I made the transition to a double-major (1). Fall Quarter of that year was seminal for me, as I took the first-year graduate theory course as well as Dr. J.K. Stein’s methods lab class for upper-level undergraduates. This followed a summer quarter in which I’d steeped myself in the philosophy of science course offered by the Philosophy department, in an effort to understand the underpinnings of what would follow, since anthropology is (at least to my mind) a unique blend of biology and social science, and in fact is the interface where these distinct ways of thinking, theorizing, and experimenting must come to terms with one another.
So twenty years ago this week, I began the second quarter of the graduate curriculum, in addition to honors classes in
the humanities and anthropology distribution courses. I’d met a good friend, Kris Wilhelmsen, during the first theory course, who has remained (along with several other of my colleagues from those days, including his wife Kim) a close friend to this day. We struggled through the second quarter of graduate theory classes together.
Spring Quarter brought geoarchaeology, a history of anthropological theory with Dr. David Spain, and one of my favorite classes, Dr. Peter Ward’s upper-division course in paleobiology. I took the course on my own whim; I doubt it was common for archaeologists to take it, then or now. For sometime at my stage of scientific development, but with a powerful interest in evolutionary theory and history, the course was an amazing experience. I was exposed to literature where instead of arguing that evolutionary theory might be applied to a subject matter, here was a group of scientists who simply shared that assumption and were merely getting on with using it to explore the history of life. Naturally, I’d read Stephen Jay Gould previously, but Ward’s course exposed me to his technical writings, along with folks like David Raup, Niles Eldredge, Dolf Seilacher, Geerat Vermeij, Joel Cracraft, and James Valentine. We did minor fieldwork projects around Seattle, collecting echinoderm samples and speculating on taphonomy, sedimentation, and ecology even as we learned a bit about paleontological fieldwork.
I went on to archaeological field school in the late spring of 1987, here on San Juan Island at English Camp National Historical Park. The project, known as the San Juan Island Archaeological Project (SJIAP), was run by Dr. Julie Stein starting in 1983. I’d visited the project in the summer of 1985 and 1986 as part of courses (including the final time Dr. Robert Greengo taught Northwest Coast prehistory), and would do minor work for it in 1988 and again in 1991. But that summer of 1987, nearly twenty years ago, I spent almost three months up here on the island, working in the summer sun and developing a love of the place that has led me back full circle as a resident.
Having returned to live in a place I love, today is doubly special as I return to an activity I love. Graduate school is a temporary thing, but it marks a return to a mode of life I previously tasted and very much enjoyed: a life of research and study. I feel very lucky today, going back to do something I’ve only dreamed of for quite some time. Regardless of what I do after graduate school is finally over, I’m very happy to be where I am today.
(1) Though I declared a double-major, my later strong concentration in anthropology caused me to be short a few credits for the B.A. in History, and in my rush to continue graduate school I never bothered to complete that half of the degree.
(photos from a recent trip to Saltspring Island, on a frozen lake between Fulford and Musgrave Landing)